at the Fine Arts Building
As Is has been a long time getting here. Too long. William M. Hoffman's drama about love in the time of AIDS was produced off and then on Broadway in 1985; in 1986 it was made into a cable-TV movie starring Robert Carradine and Colleen Dewhurst. Aside from a single scene presented as part of a 1985 AIDS benefit at the Second City, it's taken until now for the full play to make it to Chicago.
As Is is a beautiful play--funny, emotional, full of vital, interesting characters in a compelling dramatic situation, and rich in textured language. It tells a simple story that opens the door to a consideration of complex themes. It's profamily and procommitment. It reaffirms the value of courage, loyalty, love, and the will to live over the urge to succumb to despair. In short, it has everything to offer an audience looking for both sentiment and artistry. So why hasn't it been done before? And why, back when it was hot--when its off-Broadway premiere won the Drama Desk and Obie awards and its Broadway production was nominated for three Tonys--wasn't it snapped up by a theater like Steppenwolf, or Wisdom Bridge, or Victory Gardens, theaters supposedly devoted to serious new drama?
It couldn't be because As Is is about AIDS, could it? It couldn't be because its heroes--Rich, the distraught writer diagnosed with the disease, and Saul, the loyal friend and rejected lover who takes Rich in--are gay, could it?
As Is opened in New York the same season as another play about the AIDS crisis, Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. Kramer's play is a didactic semidocumentary account of the early years of the epidemic as seen from the viewpoint of a gay health activist; Hoffman's work is a more conventionally dramatic work, looking at the disease's impact on a more average, less politicized middle-class gay couple. Both plays are excellent, potent works of theater, and both received extensive national publicity on the basis of their high quality and topicality. Yet The Normal Heart wasn't produced in our supposedly vital theater city until 1987, and then only by a small suburban company (the Next, in Evanston), and then only because an extremely aggressive independent producer, David Dillon, spent months pounding the pavement looking for institutional support after he had reached a word-of-mouth agreement on the rights with Kramer. Despite the number of gay people involved on- and backstage, and despite the significant proportion of gay people in the theatergoing public, no major nonprofit theater in Chicago was willing to present either of these important, talked-about plays, which also happened to be well-written vehicles for exactly the kind of fine ensemble acting Chicago theaters pat themselves on the backs for.
So I, for one, am not going to complain that As Is is being done by a low-budget production team (Nancy Thomas Noren and Rori Petros, under the corporate name Staged Encounters) at a neglected, rather dingy venue (Curtiss Hall, the tenth-floor recital facility in the woefully-in-need-of-restoration Fine Arts Building downtown) by a cast of young, unfamiliar, non-Equity actors. And I'm certainly not going to complain that the play is a relic of an earlier phase of the mysterious epidemic whose medical, psychological, and economic impact has yet to reach its devastating peak.
In any case, there's not much to complain about. Michael Salvador's direction is rather stilted in terms of stage movement, but it's right on the money where it counts: in the emotional directness with which the actors address the play's life-and-death issues and in their finely modulated sensitivity to the poetic, even musical, contrapuntal dialogue. In a way, As Is is a gay New York reworking of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas's great verse play about life in a tiny Welsh town. Like Thomas, Hoffman finds sacred meaning in profane circumstances, and like Thomas he communicates with beauty and humor the universality of life in a small, rather isolated, almost incestuously close social setting. The key to both plays is language, and Salvador's eight-person cast--the two lead actors and a sort of Greek chorus of six who slip in and out of 18 roles--handles Hoffman's verbal demands splendidly.
As the glib but anxiety-ridden Saul, whose self-pitying infatuation for his ex-lover turns into a deeper, richer commitment, Robert Kane is good from moment to moment--by turns funny and intense and moving--but he needs to develop the emotional through-line in his character in order for his climactic, semimystical spiritual conversion to have the force it should. As Is is as much about Saul as about the AIDS-afflicted Rich, and I don't know if Kane quite realizes that yet.
Where Kane starts out strong and then fails to grow, John Cohen as Rich is quite the opposite. Obviously too young for the part of this post-Woodstock, post-Stonewall sexual explorer, Cohen at first seems rather bland as the cocky, abrasive Rich, bickering with Saul about the disbursement of their possessions--the Paul Cadmus paintings, the rowing machine, the Mickey Mouse collectibles. But as he goes through Rich's various stages of dealing with his new, little-understood illness--denial, rage, resistance, suicidal despair, and finally life-affirming catharsis--Cohen carefully crafts a portrayal of fascinating subtlety and focus. If Rich has to concentrate harder and harder on his life in order to stave off the alternative, Cohen uses that concentration to draw the audience into his character's contradictory quirks and mercurial emotions. This play is obviously a labor of love for Cohen, his fellow actors, and the production team; but no apologies are needed for the quality of their art for art's sake, either. If some apologies are due, they should come from the more prestigious, better-financed grantsmanship experts whose neglect or cowardice kept this play from reaching Chicago audiences before now.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.